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Are You as Sick of Sustainability as I Am?

<p>It seems that everywhere you turn these days, sustainability is the hot topic. While this is a good thing -- and a needed one -- people are already getting green fatigue.</p>

It seems that everywhere you turn these days, sustainability is the hot topic. While this is a good thing -- and a needed one -- people are already getting green fatigue.

To make matters worse, this isn't the first time that these issues have come to the forefront. In the '70s, popular culture, campus culture, and even bits of business started to get the message. In the '80s, I remember when Apple ditched their white shipping boxes and switched to kraft-covered ones.

So, in 40 years, we've made a little progress, but not much. And, the imperative is astronomically greater.

What needs to change is that we all need to decide, now, that sustainability is a given. It's no longer a question that customers, businesses, governments and other organizations need to prioritize efficiency, health and risk reduction. Of course, it never should have been, either.

As designers, engineers, project managers and other developers, we need to understand the four categories of impacts: financial, ecological, social and cultural, and put them into our processes -- now. it's not an option we sell to our clients or managers. It's imperative. It's not a bargaining chip to bargain away to lower the budget. It's standard -- and mandatory -- operating procedure. Only then can we make the strides we so desperately need.

We also need to stop talking about it in negatives. Sustainability isn't harder than any other imperative we currently strive for: usability, delight, efficiency, quality, etc. It's not less important than profit (and I don't hear many voices calling for us to be unprofitable).

Instead, we need to focus on, and communicate to our clients and managers about, the opportunities offered by sustainability: more efficient solutions (read: more profitable), more healthy solutions for our customers (read: less risk and increased customer interest), and the first-mover-advantage that comes with smart leadership.

Changes are going to happen with or without our action. Resources will become scarcer (if not due to depletion in the environment, then due to extraordinary increases in demand from China and India) and, therefore, more expensive -- all resources. This means that transportation of all types is going to become more expensive.

Plus, as we learn more about the effects of toxins on our bodies and environments, solutions that don't radically detoxify their impacts, will become liabilities too dangerous for companies to offer. In this case, the law will be on our side.

Sustainability offers those leading companies the opportunity to get to the future first and learn how to keep their differentiation (in products, in brand, and in customer satisfaction) when the rest of their competitors finally find their way to the same spot. If the "right thing to do" isn't enough, then competitive market differentiation, cost reduction and risk mitigation should be.

The good news is that we already know enough to practice more sustainably (practice is an apt word since we can never create perfect solutions). We have all of the principles, models and strategies we need and we even have many of the tools. While we still need better tools, the ones currently available are more than enough to help us make significant improvements now.

This is why we shouldn't have to cajole businesses, governments and customers to prioritize sustainability. It's just good business, good governing and good living to become more sustainable. Ultimately (and the sooner, the better), this should be the "given" it deserves to be and no longer a "nice to have," but expendable, option.

Besides, we have more important things to focus on: We need to kill consumerism.

But, I'll leave that to another post.

Nathan Shedroff is the chair of the MBA in Design Strategy program at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. The program maintains a blog at

Images CC licensed by Flickr users andrewrennie.  


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